Remembering WEC 53, Henderson vs. Pettis 1 and the 'Showtime' Kick
We started our road trip in Las Vegas, of all places.
Las Vegas is typically a road trip destination, not the starting point. You make your way to Vegas, sometimes stopping at the Grand Canyon or the Hoover Dam, and then you do in Vegas what people typically do in Vegas. Which is to say, you make some bad decisions and then you go home with a sad look on your face and an exhausted bank account.
But we were leaving Las Vegas and heading to Glendale, Arizona. At the time, I worked for another mixed martial arts website, and myself, Matt Brown and Megan Olivi had just returned from Montreal, where we covered the Georges St-Pierre vs. Josh Koscheck bout for our previous employer.
We were driving to Glendale because it was close enough to drive, and because we would be covering the final World Extreme Cagefighting event.
I had mixed emotions. I was glad to see all of the WEC fighters I'd had the privilege of covering finally getting the chance to make their way to the UFC, where they could compete against their Zuffa brethren. No longer would they be the redheaded stepchildren, doomed to fight in smaller venues in a smaller cage in front of less fans. Now, they'd be on the same playing field as the rest of their friends, training partners and foes.
We arrived in Glendale. We went through our standard fight week coverage, which includes interviews, press conferences and open workouts where we all stood around and watched fighters go through the motions of shadowboxing and half-hearted grappling. By that point, they've already finished their training camps, and so anything they do is for the benefit of the assembled media and our cameras.
WEC events were always fun. But because the real focus would always be on the UFC, there was always a slight feeling that they didn't really matter in the long run. Fighters debuted and fought and rose up the ranks, but what did it all mean? They'd reign over a promotion that would always be second-fiddle to the UFC. Not in terms of excitement; the WEC events I attended and covered were always among the most thrilling ones I can remember. But like every other promotion in the world, it wasn't the UFC, and so no matter what the fighters did, they could never really be considered the best.
With WEC 53, that was changing, and in a big way. The winner of the main event between Benson Henderson, then the reigning lightweight champion, and Anthony Pettis would move on to face the UFC lightweight champion in an effort to unify the titles. Of course, that never actually happened, but we didn't know what would happen in the coming months when we arrived at the arena that night.
I had my own history with Henderson. His 2009 fight against Donald Cerrone in San Antonio where he captured the interim lightweight championship was my second event as a member of the accredited media. That fight won the Fight of the Year honors from many media outlets, and I can almost remember every moment of that night four years later.
And so, arriving at the Jobing.com Arena (possibly the worst-named arena in the United States) in Glendale that night, I can remember being excited. Henderson almost always delivered exciting fights, and Pettis had developed the same type of reputation. I didn't know exactly what we'd see that night, but I was sure it would be good.
Oh, how little I knew.
Much of that night is a blur. I remember Shane Roller beating former WEC champion Jamie Varner, and I remember that it surprised me because Varner had been so good for so long. He was the former champion, but the loss was his third since losing the belt to Henderson.
Wikipedia tells me that Renan Barao defeated Chris Cariaso in the opening fight, and that Yuri Alcantara beat Ricardo Lamas in the next fight. Danny Castillo, Eddie Wineland, Brad Pickett, Ivan Menjivar, Danny Downes, Donald Cerrone, Dominick Cruz and Scott Jorgensen all competed on the card. All would go on to fight in the UFC.
Cruz won the UFC championship by beating Jorgensen in the co-main event that night. He's only fought two times since then.
But the real treat, the one that we still remember today, was the main event. It's the one that provided one of the all-time great highlight reel moments. And it's the one that has particular significance today, on the eve of the UFC 164 rematch between Henderson and Pettis.
Both men were focused on the fight, but they were also cognizant of the opportunity that would be provided for the winner.
"I'm going to go out as the last WEC champion ever and then go in as the number one contender for the UFC belt," Henderson said. "I'm gonna get that also."
"There's only one man standing in front of me and all my dreams, and that's Ben Henderson," Pettis countered. "Tonight I'm going to go in there, get the WEC title and head over to the UFC and unify these belts."
It's funny the way your memory works. Henderson and Pettis fought for five rounds, and there were but a few moments where it was not thrilling. The fight was so good, in fact, that it was awarded Fight of the Year, nearly unanimously, by media outlets covering the sport.
But looking back, I don't remember much of it. I watched the entire fight again in preparation for writing this story, and it felt like I was watching for the first time. I remember it being a close fight, and I remember going into the final round thinking that Henderson might be up and would win the fight if he put together a strong final frame.
That's what happens, I guess, when you have a moment like the one that happened in the closing moments of the fight.
With just over a minute left, Pettis moved forward. He landed a few hooks and launched a right head kick that was mostly blocked by Henderson.
And then, the unthinkable.
With 1:05 left on the clock, Henderson moved his back off the cage and started moving backwards. Pettis moved forward quickly and jumped on the cage with his right foot. Henderson dropped his hands, likely confused as to what was happening in front of him. The hands went down, and Pettis used the same right foot to push off the cage and kick Henderson in the face.
Henderson dropped to the mat, his arms to his sides. He wasn't unconscious, but he was certainly stunned. But it's very likely that he was not as stunned as I was, sitting cageside.
I don't remember Pettis trying to finish Henderson with ground and pound, or Henderson desperately grabbing Pettis' right leg and then his left in an attempt to regain his composure. In truth, I don't remember much of the final 55 seconds of the fight, because I was trying to come to grips with what I'd just seen.
I do remember turning to the media person sitting next to me—and I don't even remember who it was, such is the state of my memory. My mouth was agape. I probably cursed. In fact, I'm sure I did. In the heat of a moment like that, you lose a bit of yourself. In the media, we're supposed to remain impartial and emotion-free, and I think I do a pretty good job of that, for the most part.
But there are moments where you just can't help yourself, or at least I can't. And this was one of those moments, when the professional clothing we assume in the name of good journalism falls away. When you remember why you started watching this stuff in the first place. When you know you've seen something you will never forget, even after you move on to do something else with your life.
It's been nearly three years since that night in Glendale. Saturday night, Henderson and Pettis will meet in the Octagon for the UFC lightweight title. They're in familiar roles; Henderson is the champion and Pettis is the challenger.
Henderson tries to downplay the significance of that night, of the Showtime Kick that shocked the world, every chance he gets. I understand why. It wasn't exactly a highlight of his career, and he's forced to see it again on every UFC highlight reel and at every event he attends. He answers countless questions about what it meant, which is probably frustrating for a champion on the verge of setting a new UFC record for consecutive lightweight title defenses.
Perhaps Henderson is telling the truth, and he's past it and doesn't think about it and doesn't care. Perhaps that's just a line he gives to the media so we'll stop asking him about it.
But even if it doesn't mean anything to Henderson, it means something to me. It was a moment I'll never forget, and if I never see anything else like it in the rest of my days covering this sport—and even if Henderson and Pettis put on a boring, clinical stinker at UFC 164—I will never forget exactly where I was and exactly how I felt when I saw Pettis launch himself off that cage in Glendale.
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